The common perspective is that the likelihood of getting lost on a groomed trail while cross-country skiing is slim. While remaining on a marked trail is generally safe, as soon as you veer into the backcountry the chances of getting lost increase exponentially. Within the Nordic skiing community, the trend of going off-trail has been gaining traction in recent years. With off-trail skiing becoming more and more popular the numbers of skiers not finding their way back to the marked trail is increasing. Today I want to discuss the risks that do exist while cross-country skiing so you can keep yourself and your family safe.
Most skiing families are used to keeping a careful eye out for their children when downhill skiing. But when it comes to cross-country skiing, the risks seem less obvious, and we can feel lulled into a false sense of security. The truth is that children are easily distracted and thrilled by the wonders around them. Sometimes an exciting downhill slope or snow path through the forest is too tempting to pass up. Children are easily enticed to break from the group and go off trail. How do I know? Because that is precisely what happened to me as a child during one of my earliest skiing experiences. I want to share that story with you today to teach you some valuable lessons.
How I got lost cross-country skiing
When I got lost cross-country skiing, I was nine years old. I am currently in my mid-forties, so we need to jump in the time machine to the pre-cell phone years of 1980’s Germany. More precisely, West Germany. The geographic specifics are important to this story because at the time Germany was divided into the communist East and the free West. The Hartz region in which we were skiing on this particular day was right on the border of East Germany – about a mile’s journey from the Iron Curtain.
At the time the Hartz region was a popular cross-country skiing destination for those in both Eastern and Western Germany. We lived a two-hour drive from the region, and it was a popular skiing and hiking location for our family. On this particular day, I went skiing with my mother and older sister. My father decided to go for a walk instead.
Our day began in the early afternoon, and we had planned for a short two-hour journey that day. And what a perfect day it was. It was cold, yes, but sunny. Due to a recent snowfall, the trails were in excellent condition. The cross-country route winded through a marvelous winter landscape of snow-covered fir forests. There were quite a lot of skiers on the trail on this particular afternoon.
A child’s adventurous spirit knows no limits
As we were slowly making our way through the forest, I remember discovering a downhill path between the trees. I had a keen sense of exploration as a child and loved seeking new adventures. This discovery stimulated my sense of curiosity and I promptly told my mother that I wanted to ski down that specific hill. My mother took one look down the path lined with shady trees and expressed immediate concern. My mother understood my adventurous spirit and despite her concern, she let me ski down the hill. She warned me to come back up, but that is precisely what I didn’t do after I had finished skiing down the hill. With this, my mother’s nightmare, and this cautionary tale begins.
In retrospect, I cannot understand my decision but in my nine-year-old mind, it felt appropriate for me to wander off from my family and stride off-trail alone. During my initial foray into the forest, I felt a sense of expansive curiosity and wonder. It felt like a personal solo adventure. There was no road or trail, and I made my own tracks through the deep forest – a tantalizing experience for a child.
At one point I realized I was completely lost. Instead of retracing my tracks I kept on going deeper and deeper into the forest. I later learned that my sister had skied down the hill to look for me after she and my mother had waited in vain for my return. She followed my tracks but could not catch up with me because I must have gone very fast. Without this knowledge of her search, I kept on going. As it turns out, this was a life-saving decision.
I cannot say for certain how long I strode alone through the forest. It must have been for over an hour and because it was winter, the sun was already setting by 4 or 5 p.m. I was still skiing at this point but my initial enthusiasm was gone. I was overcome by a sensation of fear and panic and overwhelmed by these emotions, I started to cry. I did not want to give up, however, and so I kept on going. I finally came to a forest road and felt an initial sense of relief. I hoped this would lead me somewhere safe. I turned out to be correct, and after a short journey, I saw a couple skiing in the distance. I decided to follow them but in my childlike shame, I avoided approaching them. I knew I had done something foolish and I just wanted to be reunited with my family!
I walked for another hour or so along the forest road before I saw lights in the distance. We were approaching a village. The relief I felt was palpable as it was already pitch black and silent in the winter forest. I can’t even remember whether I was cold or whether I had taken my skis off as my memory is completely preoccupied by my memory of the darkness. I walked through the village and discovered a kiosk where a woman was selling hot coffee and tea. I approached her and immediately started crying. She instantly knew what was going on. There had been several emergency announcements on the local radio station broadcasting that a nine-year-old had gone missing on the mountain that afternoon. Remember – there were no mobile phones. The lady in the kiosk had to run to the neighbors’ house to call the police.
I have few memories of the rest of the day. A police car came to pick me up and brought me to the police station where my parents and sister were waiting in a panic. We later learned that not only the local police but the border police as well was involved in the search because of our proximity to the East German border.
I can only imagine the tremendous sense of relief my parents must have felt when I returned. The worry and terror must have been insurmountable. To this day, my mother claims that the moment she saw me again in the police station was life-changing.
Keep an eye on your child
This is admittedly a very personal story, but that is precisely why I wanted to share it with you. This story allows you to understand the experience of going off-trail from a nine-year-old perspective. Oftentimes, when we hear about people getting lost in the wilderness, we hear about the associated severe weather conditions, accidents, or health problems that led them off-trail. When it comes to children, however, wandering off-trail often has different motivations. We are all born with a beautiful natural instinct to explore and wander, and this is what inspires children to stray away. This is also one of the reasons we love skiing in the first place. But at the same time, it is vital to know our limits and this knowledge comes with age and experience. Children simply don’t know how to mediate their sense of exploration with a practical knowledge of the consequences.
As a parent, there is a fine line between protecting your child and letting them learn through experience. There is no one size fits all solution. When your child is ready to go skiing on their own, it is important to allow them some freedom but also keep a watchful eye. The endless enthusiasm and exploratory spirit of your child are wonderful, but you must temper it with firm and careful parenting. If my parents had been able to keep an eye on me then my journey into the forest would have been safe.
7 Tips to Avoid Getting Lost
With this cautionary tale in mind, here are some essential tips that can help keep you and your family safe.
- Don’t go off on your own. This is particularly true when you are a new skier or a casual skier. It is so much more fun with another person or in a group anyways.
- Never go off-trail if you don’t have experience backcountry skiing. I understand that it can be hard to follow this rule, but I strongly recommend avoiding ungroomed remote trails if you lack the expertise and experience to do so.
- Know your limits. Check the length of the trail you are planning. It is also vital to understand the terrain. Is it flat or hilly? Official trail ratings are useful in most cases, but their comprehensiveness can vary depending on the area. It is always a good idea to talk to someone in the Nordic center. Inform them of your skiing level and ask them for advice and insight into the current trail conditions.
- Plan your trip. Let people know when you are going, where you are going and when you are planning to be back. If there is a skiing center, let the staff know what your plans are.
- Take extra gear with you. Always bring a supply of water and a nutritious snack along with a basic first aid kit and an extra layer to protect you from the elements. Bring along a charged cell phone equipped with a navigation app and a manual compass. Ensure that you know how to properly use a compass and research whether there will be cell phone coverage in your area.
- Check the weather forecast. You must study the current weather conditions and the outlook for the entire day. Weather changes quickly and unexpectedly in the mountains.
- And finally, if there is even a tiny risk of an avalanche do not go. When it comes to avalanches, you must be very conservative in your decision making regardless of your level of experience.